“Mr. Tambourine Man” was written, composed, and performed by Bob Dylan, who released his original version of it on his 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home.
The Byrds’ version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was listed as the number 79 song on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Dylan’s version was ranked number 106. In a 2005 reader’s poll reported in Mojo, Dylan’s version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” was listed as the number 4 all-time greatest Bob Dylan song, and a similar poll of artists ranked the song number 14. In 2002, Uncut listed it as the number 15 all-time Dylan song.
The song has a bright, expansive melody and has become famous in particular for its surrealistic imagery, influenced by artists as diverse as French poet Arthur Rimbaud and Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini.
The lyrics call on the title character to play a song and the narrator will follow. Interpretations of the lyrics have included a paean to drugs such as LSD, a call to the singer’s muse, a reflection of the audience’s demands on the singer, and religious interpretations.
Dylan’s song has four verses, of which The Byrds only used the second for their recording. Dylan’s and The Byrds’ versions have appeared on various lists ranking the greatest songs of all time, including an appearance by both on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 best songs ever. Both versions also received Grammy Hall of Fame Awards.
Dylan began writing and composing “Mr. Tambourine Man” in February 1964, after attending Mardi Gras in New Orleans during a cross-country road trip with several friends, and completed it sometime between the middle of March and late April of that year after he had returned to New York.
Nigel Williamson has suggested in The Rough Guide to Bob Dylan that the influence of Mardi Gras can be heard in the swirling and fanciful imagery of the song’s lyrics. Journalist Al Aronowitz has claimed that Dylan completed the song at his home, but folk singer Judy Collins, who later recorded the song, has stated that Dylan completed the song at her home.
While there has been speculation that the song is about drugs such as LSD or marijuana, particularly with lines such as “take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship” and “the smoke rings of my mind”, Dylan has always denied the song is about drugs. Though he was using marijuana at the time the song was written, Dylan was not introduced to LSD until a few months later.
Other commentators have interpreted the song as a call to the singer’s spirit or muse, or the singer’s search for transcendence. In particular, biographer John Hinchey has suggested in his book Like a Complete Unknown that the singer is praying to his muse for inspiration; Hinchey notes that ironically the song itself is evidence the muse has already provided the sought-after inspiration.
Mr. Tambourine Man has also been interpreted as a symbol for Jesus Christ and for the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The song may also reference gospel music, with Mr. Tambourine Man being the bringer of religious salvation.
Dylan has cited the influence of Federico Fellini’s movie La Strada on the song, while other commentators have found echoes of the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. Author Howard Sounes has identified the lyrics “in the jingle jangle morning I’ll come following you” as having been taken from a Lord Buckley recording.
Bruce Langhorne, who performs guitar on the track, has been cited by Dylan as the inspiration for the tambourine man image in the song. Langhorne used to play a giant, four-inch-deep “tambourine” (actually a Turkish frame drum), and had brought the instrument to a previous Dylan recording session.
Here is his first live performance of the song, in 1964, at the Newport Folk Festival, from before his studio recording of the song: